Monthly Archives: September 2018

Story Untold: “No Matter How Bad Things Get, There’s a Reason to Keep Going”

Story Untold with Greg Gilhooly

In ‘I Am Nobody,’ Greg Gilhooly details the years of abuse he suffered as a young hockey player, and his path to recovery. (Photo credit: Greg Smith)

What happens after the worst imaginable comes true? How do you pick up and carry on? In I Am Nobody, first-time author Greg Gilhooly attempts to answer that question.

*Note: Story contains sensitive content*

Gilhooly was a rising star — straight-A student and promising goaltender — when he met hockey coach Graham James in Winnipeg in 1979, an encounter that would forever alter the course of his life. What started with a post-game comment on the way off the ice led to years of abuse, and decades of personal torment.

To understand Gilhooly’s story, one must first get a sense of Winnipeg’s minor hockey scene in the 1970s and 1980s, and the man that largely defined it.

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James, says Gilhooly, “was seen as an esteemed god” in hockey circles: a man who controlled the fates of thousands of hockey-playing teens by virtue of his scouting connections in the Western Hockey League. James was a man who could launch careers, a man you wanted to impress.

He was also, unbeknownst to the community at the time, a sexual predator. After a tournament in Minneapolis, James and Gilhooly started to talk.

“He clearly knew a lot about me, and he said that when we got back to Winnipeg, we should get together,” says Gilhooly, now a lawyer in Oakville. “That’s how it started.”

“Once Graham had an opening to talk to me, that was all [he] needed to work his skills in terms of trying to get to me. I didn’t recognize it as grooming when it was happening, but when I look back on it as an adult, I can see that anything he ever told me—I have no idea whether it was true or not—but to the boy I was back then, it all made perfect sense.” – Greg Gilhooly

A coach of the hockey team several years ahead of Gilhooly, James promised a kind of personal mentorship to the young goalie, a path to bigger stages, as long as one caveat was followed.

“Right from the get-go, secrecy was of paramount importance to Graham,” says Gilhooly. “He made it clear, even from our first conversation in Minneapolis, that I was not to tell anyone that we had even spoken about this. That if my coaches caught wind that Graham was interfering at all, that would be no good for me.”

“I’m a 14-year-old kid, and it all makes perfect sense to me as to why I shouldn’t be telling anyone,” he adds.

When the two met, it started with conversations about hockey and personal training sessions. Over time, though, James began to work on breaking down Gilhooly’s barriers.

He positioned himself as a mentor: a caring mentor who was going to ask me things that nobody else would ask me. That’s exactly what he did, except he wasn’t going to be a mentor, he was going to be an abuser.”

“The way Graham worked on me for months was that he effectively became my father figure … He had me thinking that my father was not [looking out for] my best interests, that Graham was the only one who cared about me, [that] my coaches didn’t care about me, my friends didn’t care about me.” – Greg Gilhooly

The abuse, says Gilhooly, lasted for years: all the way up until he left Winnipeg for Princeton University.

“The mantra was always, ‘people like us have to stick together,’ and that if my secret ever got out, my hopes and dreams would be over. No hockey program in the U.S., college system, or whatever would want anything to do with me,” says Gilhooly.

“It happened again, and then it happened again, and it happened again. And I’m left thinking, ‘Why are you going back to him? You can’t stop this? You must want this to happen. You are everything he’s saying you are.‘ And so my sense of self fell away.”

In return, Gilhooly responded by taking it out on himself: a pattern of self-destruction that carried on, even after he left Winnipeg for Princeton, and later, the University of Toronto.

“That’s the problem with sexual abuse, is that it’s far more than the physical act of the abuse, because it leaves the mental carnage behind,” he says. “I hated myself, and so anything that I was doing that signalled to the outside world as being success, I felt instantly like a fraud, because I knew who I really was.”

“I was doing whatever I could to get the outside world to see me as a fraud, and it wasn’t working.” – Greg Gilhooly

In 1996, the past came rushing back to Gilhooly when a then 27-year-old Sheldon Kennedy announced that he had been sexually abused by James for years, dating back to the time that he was 14. James plead guilty and was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison.

“I wasn’t strong enough to come forward then, but even worse, I blamed myself for what had happened to Sheldon, because it had come after me,” says Gilhooly. “Someone’s life has been destroyed because of my inability to act. It’s no longer simply about me and the destruction of my own life; my inability to be me has now tangibly hurt another person.”

Not for the first time, he contemplated suicide.

“I got to the point where I sat on a bridge and looked the other side in the face,” he says. “I decided that I was either going to die or I was going to live, and I was going to give life a shot.”

By the time NHL All-Star Theoren Fleury released Playing With Fire in 2009, detailing his own experiences of abuse suffered under James, Gilhooly was ready to break his silence. He filed charges with the Winnipeg Police. He had already been going to therapy for the past year — a process he describes as a long road.

“Recovery was a process of letting a third party or third parties in to try to rightsize my basket of thoughts, for lack of a better image. I needed help working through why it happened to me.” – Greg Gilhooly

“It’s so humbling to need to reach out for help,” he says. “Coming out the other end, I can say that reaching out for help is the best thing I’ve ever done, and I encourage anyone who needs help to get it, but I completely understand how scary it is to ask for help, to admit that you need help.”

James plead guilty to the charges filed by Fleury and his cousin, Todd Holt, but in the deal he struck, Gilhooly’s charges were stayed.

“What I have learned is that to think that I’m ever going to get closure from a third party is an irrational quest, because what has to happen is to be able to live a life, and to live a life is to live a life without dark thoughts in your head, and to make peace with what’s happened,” says Gilhooly.

There are still bad days, nights when the memories return unbidden. Still, the worst is behind him, and better days ahead.

“If my story means anything,” says Gilhooly, “it’s that no matter how bad things get, there’s a reason to keep going, because you can come out the other side.”


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Home and the Art of Bicycle Assembly

Victoria, BC

The afternoon sun shone bright and hazy as the twin propellors hummed outside the airplane window. 4,000 feet below, the Pacific Ocean spread out in ripples of aqua-blue, catching the sun’s rays and lighting up in bursts of brilliant white-gold. Vancouver’s skyline turned to pins in a cushion as we rose to cruising altitude and flew over the Salish Sea, a patchwork of Gulf Islands ahead. I craned my neck around for one last look at the city and the North Shore Mountains, beyond whose peaks laid the rest of Canada and all that it stood for: Friendships. Family. Triumphs. Regrets. Love. Heartache. A lifetime. Home.

One by one, the plane passed over the varied isles and skerries that pockmark the Strait of Georgia and rise out of the ocean’s depths like whales breaching for air. I spotted the long, narrow neck of Galiano, then the forested hills of Salt Spring. I was bound for the coastal capital of Victoria, and all that it represented: Excitement. Opportunity. Fear. Uncertainty. Change. A new beginning.

We don’t get too many of those in life: new beginnings. There’s the occasional new job or new relationship — maybe a new addition to the family — but reinvention is messy, troublesome. It goes against the things we covet most: comfort and security. I once interviewed a writer who referred to travel as the practice of giving up one’s pillow, and in this case, I was giving up the whole bed. Leaving home meant putting myself out into the world, either to take it on the chin or let its wind guide my sails. It meant moving to a city, meeting new people, saying yes to new opportunities. It meant cobbling together the things that make up a life and starting something new.

***

The first new thing was a second piece of ID. The cashier waited expectantly at the BC Liquor checkout line as I stood there, six-pack on the counter, clueless as to why my driver’s license and healthy beard wasn’t proof enough of my age.

“We do things differently here,” she told me.

I learned quickly just how different things could be.

For one thing, stores are banned from giving out plastic bags in Victoria. My landlord made sure I left the house with an armful of reusable bags before my first trip to the grocery store. For another thing, Victorians are exceedingly polite to their bus drivers. (Unrelated, I know, but these are the things you notice when you’re new to a place.) Rarely a stop goes by that I don’t hear a loud “thank you” proclaimed by a passenger exiting the bus, and on a recent trip on the #7 line, I listened to the driver personally call out all the stops along the way, despite the automated recordings working just fine. I felt like a crude Ontarian by comparison, in my wilful ignorance of all things and all people. I shudder to think what other boorish behaviour I’ve brought with me.

***

The bigger new thing was the ocean — a constant presence which takes on greater significance when you live on an island. From my view at the top of Foul Bay Road, just a short walk away from home, I can see the ribbon of ocean blue peeking above the line of trees that stretches from Oak Bay to Gonzales, and on clear days — my favourite days — the Olympic Mountains loom above the water, their faded blue peaks like brushstrokes on the horizon.

On those days, the thought of home feels as distant as Washington’s shoreline, and instead, I’m wrapped up in the magic that comes with living in one of the most beautiful places in Canada. I’ll ride downhill until Crescent Road and Beach Drive, past McNeill Bay and the rocks at Kitty Islet, where driftwood piles on the pebbled beach and a trio of Muskoka chairs beg for passersby to sit and stay awhile. A short stretch away, I’ll reach the Victoria Golf Club, where on most days, I’ll cross paths with a few deer in search of their breakfast. Eventually, I’ll reach Willows Beach and Cattle Point before turning inland for home, putting my back to the ocean once again.

***

It’s been nearly three weeks since I landed on Vancouver Island, saddled with bags full of clothes and a bicycle in need of reassembly. I put the bike back together on the first day, rummaging for missing pieces and fiddling with hex wrenches until what I’d assembled looked, for all intents and purposes, like a bicycle ready for use. I even felt good about it until bringing it into a shop, where the mechanic immediately set about truing the wheels and lubing the brake cable, all the while rattling off other things in need of adjustment — things that come when you’ve pedalled a country’s length on the same two wheels.

The other reassembly, the one that comes with making up a life, takes longer, but I’ve found most of the pieces — and really, most are the same as the ones before. Family is family, wherever you go. Some friends, I’m closer to now than I was before. The other bits come with time.

After that, well, show me a person who doesn’t have at least a few screws loose.

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